Quoth This 'Raven': Ever-Bore
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
"The Raven" casts Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) as a P.I. of sorts, a not entirely surprising role for the writer credited with inventing detective fiction. During the final week of his life, the down-and-out writer teams up with the Baltimore police to hunt down a killer who copycats grisly homicides based on Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Pit and the Pendulum."
It's possible to glimpse the skeleton of a meaty plot-that-might-have-been, had a real filmmaker gifted with dark wit and intelligence taken on this story. Instead of a meandering mess bereft of suspense or significance, "The Raven" might have been a smart, Cronenbergian horror movie about the unwholesome, even fatal, umbilical connections among writers, critics, muses and rabid fans. Fertile ground for perversity, murder and madness, if only director James McTeigue and company had been able to see further than a low-rent mash-up of "Seven" and "Saw."
The director who stitched "The Raven" together has no idea how to frame or compose a scene, let alone "grow" a film organically. Always MIA in McTeigue's movies ("V for Vendetta," "Ninja Assassin") are visual logic, coherence and any sense of cinematic grace, though noisy pretensions abound. Take this especially egregious example of klutzy cutting, pacing and continuity: A black-clad, skull-masked figure on horseback surges into the middle of a masquerade ball where Poe, clad in the colors of the night, waltzes with his pastel lady love. In one fell swoop, McTeigue blows the kinetic power of the huge, ebon animal exploding into space reserved for civilized dress-up and play, a variation on the terror Poe mines in "The Masque of the Red Death." Maybe the jackrabbit camerawork is meant to give Poe and Emily time to just ... disappear. Because, cut, it's next morning, and our hero's announcing that Emily was kidnapped at the ball. Excuse me, how and when did that happen? Did Poe decide he needed a potty break after the Grim Reaper steeplechase?
Not a single cast member in "The Raven" can claim much more than "I was there." All are wasted, except for Alice Eve, Poe's blond inamorata, for she has nothing to waste. Goateed Cusack veers from strained, hysterical ranting to permanent slack-jawed shock. As Fields, Poe's detective "double," Luke Evans champs at the bit for something to do in a movie that asks only that he look manly. Brendan Gleeson just growls and glowers.
The laughably anachronistic language spoken by the film's 19th-century Baltimoreans jitters from pretend-period rhythms to casual todayspeak. Emily, buried alive, begs for mercy; her nemesis snarls, "Shut it! Or I'll shut it for you!" And our Valley Girl heroine whimpers, "Okay, okaaaaay." And you gotta cherish the moment when our villain confesses, "I guess I just went a little nuts."
What passes for detective work in this leaden whodunit falls light years short of "From Hell" or "Sleepy Hollow," where the investigator digs deep enough into the case to find a familiar face gazing back at him, a killer who's the hero's psychic doppelganger. "The Raven"'s mystery drags out in more pedestrian environs, though Baltimore's streets are never without fog, nor neighboring woods free of mist. What's meant to drive Poe in this ever more aimless quest is Emily's kidnapping. With Emily buried prematurely, her survival depends on him churning out case reporting for the newspapers while sniffing after the deranged killer.
From the get-go, it's difficult to see the homeless, broke, alcoholic, opium-eating writer, followed all his life by "the black dog of melancholy," falling for a dim-bulb heiress who looks like a California cheerleader. When Emily recites "Annabel Lee," the poem her lover has written for her, it's excruciating, like some vapid high schooler monotoning Poe's passionate lines. Painful to say, since who doesn't respect and adore Mr. Cusack, but his manic-depressive Poe is just one-dimensional enough to deserve her.
Clearly, McTeigue and barely literate screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston haven't a clue what Poe's stories are actually about. They fastened on the writer's ingenious machinery of murder and saw "Saw"-bucks on their horizon. And Poe's only the latest casualty in Hollywood's grave-robbing spree. Pretty much bankrupt when it comes to new ideas, the men who make the movies have taken to digging up the dead -- Poe, Abraham Lincoln, Sherlock Holmes -- and reanimating them as sort-of superheroes, complete with popcult embellishments.
Once the Dream Factory finally runs out of original fare, they'll sell tickets for viewings of dead stars, Photoshopped and CGI'd into big-budget remakes. That's the kind of premature burial that would really give Poe nightmares.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.